I came in last. And it was great.

I ran a 10 km road race this weekend, and I finished dead last. And it was great.

I wasn’t expecting to win. When I registered, I figured that like in the many festive road races I’d run before, I’d simply blend in with the pack, my physical mediocrity invisible among the bell curve of humanity. It’d be a great reason to get some good runs in early in the season, and I’d start the summer off in better-than-normal-for-me shape. This one would be even better because it was passing through my neighborhood, even traveling along my normal loop at certain points, so it was surely convenient.

Showing up at the starting line to pick up my number, I learned that there were just 60 of us, nearly all of whom were wearing such technical gear that it was obvious that I was out of my league. Incredulous that things could be this bad, I laughed it off, but within about two minutes of the crack of the starting pistol, I could see that the my fellow 59 runners and I were parting company.

This put me immediately in an interesting psychological state. Because I really, really hate being last. I hate simply being bad. As a child, if things didn’t come really easily to me, I’d quit. Ballet, softball, guitar, honors math. So I excelled at everything I did, because I only did the things at which I excelled. Carol Dweck calls this fixed mindset, in which we believe that our character and talent are static and determined early in life. Clearly it’s less preferable to growth mindset, a viewpoint that thrives on challenge and sees it “not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities,” (as written in Maria Popova’s excellent summary of Dweck’s research.)

Being bad at something, especially sports in a group, has in the past awakened a deep sense of shame, and sure enough, shame planted itself on my shoulder for a good view of the unfolding events about 500 meters into the run. Lately, I’ve also started noticing that when I’m ashamed, I lash out with blame. That was there too. Blaming the organizers for doing such a pitiful marketing job, blaming the other runners for being so gifted, even blaming the receding glaciers for leaving the landscape so hilly. This very short animated video of  Brené Brown’s wisdom on blame sums up how blame is simply another attempt at escaping an uncomfortable emotion.

It would have been normal to quit, but I guess all these years of listening to people like Jon Kabat-Zinn and Pema Chodron have had some effect. They’re always saying stuff like “mindfulness is simply the moment-to-moment paying attention to what’s happening  without judgement” and even more simply: “Don’t bite the hook.” And by that I have understood that when an uncomfortable feeling shows up, there can be some value in not trying to turn it off, and instead just observe yourself feeling it. Easier said than done. But at some point during Kilometer 1 of this humiliation, it struck me that this could be an opportunity for some major not biting of the hook. I could allow the anger, blame and shame to rage on the inside, while my legs slowly carried me along.

The kilometers passed, and I fell further and further behind. Every several hundred yards, there was a volunteer stationed to cheer people on and make sure we didn’t lose track of the trail. Each such encounter was a renewed opportunity for embarrassment, and I imagined that they were all in communication with each other about this pear-shaped, middle-aged, out-of-shape lady who was wasting their Saturday evening. I apologized to each of them for being so slow and thanked them for waiting, grateful for the ones who didn’t jump in their car and dash off seconds after I passed.

Eventually, my thoughts turned to dropping out, and I started formulating a plan about how I would take off my number and hand it to one of the officials at the next check-in. The problem was, I lived near the finish line, and I’d still have to run the entire way home anyway. I found myself thinking that I’d run just a little bit more, and hit a rather long stretch during which I was on my own.

I was still feeling pretty crappy but noticed that other thoughts started showing up. “Nothing changes if nothing changes,” I watched myself think. Dropping out would simply reinforce that I was a quitter. Then I thought that while it might feel terrible to finish last, it would definitely feel worse not to finish at all. At the top of a hill I started thinking about what kind of message would I be sending to my daughter if I dropped out, and what a gift it might be to show her, just once, that it was ok to be bad at things. I thought about my son and how, because of the way society is rigged for people without his cognitive and physical disabilities, he often comes in last in life. I suddenly appreciated his grace and dignity in the face of constant messages of not being good enough. Could this experience give me insight into his experience?

I thought about the people who weren’t running but had wanted to. Maybe there was someone who would see me shuffle by and think, “If she can, I can.” And finally, I started questioning my projections on the volunteers. Why did I assume that they were bored and impatient for me to finish? Maybe they deserved better.

There was a water break at around Kilometer 6. I was out in the middle of the woods with two teenage girls who made me feel like this was the most fun they’d had in weeks, confirming my theory that projections are some powerful magic. I asked them if they’d ever been last. Yes, they said. Any tips? Well, one of them said, you’re doing way better than the people who didn’t sign up. And at that moment, I knew I’d finish.

All of a sudden, I was at Kilometer 8, then 9. For the last 100 meters, I was cheered on by everyone who had volunteered at the registration and the starting and finish line; it felt like there were more people than had run in the entire race. I expected it to be the stake in the coffin of humiliation, but some knot has loosened, and it was actually great. One of the shy teenage boys who I’d seen out volunteering on the course even came up to me and said that he thought I worked really hard. Not sure it was meant as a compliment, but I took it as such. I think it was.

And suddenly…I was done. I looked down at the medal that someone has slipped around my neck at some point and realized that nowhere on it did it say that I’d finished last (by a lot). Maybe it was the endorphins or the dehydration, but I took this selfie and realizedIMG_6455 that the only thing I felt was great. Simply watching the shame and the blame unfold without reacting had released some deep behavioral patterns and habitual thoughts, like touching a soap bubble with my finger.

So this is what coming in last feels like. My legs are sore, but my spirit is soaring. I can live with this.

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Surprise, surprise

Where to begin? Life has not lent itself well to blogging lately. Too much living and not enough time to write about it. Maybe that’s the way it should be.

I find I am content. Satisfied. Friendly toward myself even. And that doesn’t make for great subject matter or inspiration.

I spent last week on a meditation retreat, cupped gently in the hands of the verdant rolling hills of New York’s Hudson Valley and two skillful and nurturing teachers, the lovely Jon Kabat-Zinn and Saki Santorelli, and surrounded by a community of new friends and fellow travellers.

Stepping so far away from my day-to-day, away from not only work and family, but also my smart phone and computer, my patterns and habits, from TV and even reading, that I felt like I had taken a blow torch to some mental and emotional cob webs, set them alight, watched them burn and maybe even let them go. Yes, Shiva the Destroyer—and Durga’s consort—was in the house.

While the inner machinations of my own mental process is fascinating to me, I doubt it will be to you, so I won’t bore you. But one surprising thing did come up that I wanted to share.

It is this: this label, this story that “I am a parent of a child with special needs” is … changing. Feeling less precious, less necessary.

In the moments of stillness and silence of the retreat, when I expected it to appear like a gale force wind, it was merely a quiet breeze.

How strange. Surely, after these last couple of years, there could be nothing else worthy of my ruminations? But not only were there plenty of other thoughts to watch—most notably my profound and continuous striving to be someone other than who I am—I found that it just didn’t come up much.

By the end of the week, when I came out of silence to my first intimate conversation about what I had seen, I noticed that I didn’t even bring it up. It simply wasn’t part of the story. After years of demanding that there’s got to be more to life than this…I find that there is.

I don’t know how I feel about the possibility of letting go of this identity, or if I’m even ready to. It has been a liberator and a jailor, a lightening rod and a scape goat, a shield and a veil, a pulpit and a gallows. That’s a lot to let go of.

And “letting go” is too active a verb to describe what’s happening. I’m not doing anything. It’s doing itself. It’s letting go of me. Or maybe not letting go, just melting, melding, or pulsating between itself and something else.

Sitting in the Charnel Ground

Heads-up: This post contains some dark images, but I’m letting them out in the hopes of letting some sunlight in, shining some light onto what I’m sure many struggle with.

The moment starts out mundanely enough. Standing in line for coffee at our local donut shop, I attempt to distract myself from the racks of be-sprinkled options behind the counter by giving all my attention to silent TV monitor hanging from the ceiling. Then there it is, the scrolling headline of the mid-day news about the local schoolworker accused of sexually assaulting a student with a developmental delay, and I’m real, real gone, as Van Morrison says. An invisible hand has punched me solidly in the gut, and for the next few hours I’m walking, weak-kneed, in a terror-induced fog.

This has been happening for a while, this getting overcome by stories of abuse when I least expect them. Half-heartedly skimming down my Facebook wall, I come across a headline (courtesy of the disability organization that I apparently “Like”) about two adults with developmental disabilities who have been found locked in a basement by a couple who stole their Social Security checks.  That I do not wretch is a miracle. Or in class, watching an inspirational short film about disability reform, images of neglected “students” from an institution in the 1950’s flicker by, and it’s all I can do to get myself out of the room before convulsing in tears in the hallway.

These images come when I least expect them, when I’m least prepared. They are the distillation of my very real but unspoken terror: When I am dead, who will protect my vulnerable, trusting son from abuse? (There, I said it.)

Buddhists might say that I have found my charnel ground: the above-ground sites of ancient and medieval India and the Himalayas, where corpses were left to decay naturally with the help of scavengers and the elements. It is said that the Buddha encouraged his students to meditate in charnel grounds as a way of releasing the ultimate attachment: the attachment to one’s body and to this life itself. The practice was meant to be uncomfortable and challenging. Kind of like a spiritual Tough Mudder. Get through this and all else will be a cakewalk. Not sure there’s a “getting through” this, but I would like to be able to not burst into tears in a meeting. So it could be worth practicing.

Pema Chödrön guided us through a Charnel Ground Practice when I went to her retreat this past fall. Her advice: To build your tolerance, don’t try to stay engaged for too long. For 30 seconds at most, just be with the feeling, the terror, the rage, whatever it is and then retreat. Breathe through your nose, not your mouth, which is more likely to bring the feelings up to the surface. Stroke your arm, which does something biologically to calm you down. Think about something else. Like any muscle, over straining causes injury, sometimes irreparably so, so don’t overdo it.

I think it’s working. In the past, these images were so terrorizing that it’s one of the reasons I avoided engaging with the disability world at all. I didn’t have the capacity to handle even a split-second consciousness of these possibilities. But now that I’ve taken the leap into the deep end of advocacy and activism, these stories are everywhere and there is reason to practice tolerating them. If I want to understand how to eliminate the circumstances that make these atrocities possible from happening in the first place, I have to engage.

Part of living fully and deeply means learning, if not to get comfortable with, then to at least tolerate the presence of great sorrow without turning away. Facing our deepest fears, if only for a few seconds from time to time, we can learn to be there for each other, not get carried off by our fears, and stay present and aware of what is needed of us in the moment to make things better for all.

A few minutes in the hospital lobby

I arrived a little earlier than expected at our local pediatric hospital last Friday. I have spent plenty of hours there with my son, both inpatient and outpatient, or visiting friends whose children are also patients, providing plenty of opportunities for a lot of suffering.

On this day though, I’m here in a more neutral role, as a student participating in a fellowship on developmental disability. Relishing the few extra minutes and the chance to get centered before a day of lectures, I grab a private seat in the lobby to slip in a few minutes of meditation.

I’m a pretty straightforward vipassana meditation gal, usually just “gentling myself” (thank you, Jon Kabat-Zinn, for this tender phrase) myself toward awareness, moment-by-moment, on purpose, using sounds as my anchor. But on this day, with a delightful kinetic lobby sculpture clanging away, along with the murmurs of pacing parents on cell phones updating friends and family on about another long and probably sleepless night, sound is too challenging a focal point.

Leaning into the palpable emotions that surround me, I make a quick adjustment to instead try out a few minutes of tonglen meditation. Tibetan for “sending and receiving,” tonglen meditation is one in which one breathes in the pain of others and breathes out the means of their relief. Setting my handy iPhone timer, I close my eyes, put my feet on the floor, and welcome whatever pain shows up. In this place, there is plenty to be found.

On each inhalation, I draw on my own experience of my past suffering in this very space, and breathe in hot and sharp pain — not just my own but what I imagine the children, healers, the administrators and the other parents, might be feeling right at this moment. On each exhalation, I breathe out a cool relief.

I don’t know if this really helps anyone but myself. I hope that on some level this intention manifests itself as some peace in the world, some real and specific release from pain, but I can’t be sure. I do know that in being willing to open myself up to the suffering of others, I open myself up to all emotions, even good ones, peeling away the layers that create a barrier between me and the rest of humanity.

Breathing in pain, I breathe out comfort.

Breathing in fear, I breathe out ease.

Breathing in anger, I breathe out openness.

Breathing in impatience, I breathe out patience.

Breathing in impulsivity, I breathe out steadiness.

Breathing in pride, I breathe out humility.

Breathing in resignation, I breathe out perseverance.

Breathing in isolation, I breathe out connection.

Breathing in confusion, I breathe out clarity.

Breathing in despair, I breathe out strength.

Breathing in pain, I breathe out love.

May all children be free from suffering and harm.

May all families be free from suffering and harm.

May all staff be free from suffering and harm.

May all beings, including you and I, be free from suffering and harm.

Expanding the circle of “us”

You don’t know how it feels to be me.” Tom Petty

Community is a wonderful thing, a place where we feel a deep sense of belonging, a place where we feel seen.  The special needs parenting community has been particularly healing for me. Connecting with people who understand my challenges, my fears and my anger releases or lightens those very same emotions simply through the act of having them observed and acknowledged by someone who I believe understands them. Realizing that instead of just a “me” there is an “us” is a true blessing.

The trouble is that with every “us” there comes a “them.” By finding comfort and community with those who understand what it’s like to be me, I’ve been drawing a ring around the “us.” While I’m not exactly banishing folks who haven’t shared my experience to the space outside of the circle, I’m unconsciously not including them.

This weekend I was on a meditation retreat with the Buddhist nun and wonderful teacher Pema Chödrön. At certain points throughout the weekend, she invited questions from the audience. An audience that I realize now I saw as “them.” People approached the mic, shared their stories, sought advice. People who had no idea about my particular flavor of pain, but who clearly had their own: addictions, abuse, trauma, violence, isolation. It was impossible to not expand my circle to include them in “us.” Our pain is all the same, Pema pointed out. Only the storylines differ.

When I am in pain, I feel isolated, cut off and invisible. Why would I want to inflict that pain on someone else? It struck me that placing someone outside my circle was an act of aggression, of causing that very same pain. It’s a little embarrassing and ironic for a person who declares she wants everyone to be included.

“How did I get so lucky to have my heart awakened to others and their suffering?”

–Pema Chödrön